Responding to online complaints from patients

The increasing use of social media and online reviews has made it easier for patients to comment publicly on the care they receive. Dr Marika Davies from Medical Protection offers advice on how to respond.

It is always difficult to receive criticism from a patient, but it can be even harder when that criticism is made publicly.

The increasing use of social media and online reviews has made it easier for patients to comment publicly on the care they receive. Often the comments are positive, but sometimes they are inaccurate, unfair, or misleading. This can be very frustrating especially when the feedback is made anonymously, or if patient confidentiality prevents you from putting the record straight.

Confidentiality

The issue of confidentiality is an important one. In its guide Confidentiality - responding to criticism in the media the GMC says that you should usually limit your public response to an explanation of your legal and professional duty of confidentiality.

However, the GMC recognises that social media discussions might cause patients to be concerned about your practice. In such cases, it may be appropriate to give general information about your normal practice.

‘You must be careful not to reveal personal information about a patient, or to give an account of their care, without their consent,’ the guidance says. ‘If you deny allegations that appear in public media, you must be careful not to reveal, directly or by omission or inference, any more personal information about the patient than a simple denial demands.’

Responding to online comments

Practices need to be ready to deal with online criticism, and should use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that they take concerns seriously and want to improve the care they provide patients. A good response will reflect well on the practice, and will help counter-balance the negative remarks that have been made.

What you say in your online response is as important, if not more so, than the comments that patients have made about you. The GMC says that disputes between patients and doctors conducted in public can prolong or intensify conflict and may undermine public confidence in the profession, even if they do not involve the disclosure of personal information without consent.

So how should you respond when a patient has made negative comments about you or your practice online? A professional response will come across well to any others who may read the comments, and is the best way to try to resolve the patient’s concerns as swiftly as possible. Here are five steps that will help you to post a good reply:

  1. A quick response is important, although try to make sure that the reply is calm, measured and not written in haste. A knee-jerk reaction may just inflame the situation further.
  2. Thank the patient for their comments, acknowledge the specific concerns they have raised, and apologise if appropriate.
  3. Explain that you take all concerns very seriously, and that you will investigate the matter further.
  4. Invite the patient to contact you, giving them specific contact details to arrange a telephone call or meeting. Consider using your complaints procedure to deal with any expressions of dissatisfaction.
  5. Bear in mind your duty of confidentiality and do not disclose any personal information.

Finally, ask for advice from your medical defence organisation if you consider it may be necessary to have offending posts removed or to seek legal redress.

  • Dr Marika Davies is senior medicolegal adviser at Medical Protection

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